In 1946, when Humphrey Bogart signed an updated contract with Warner Bros., he was able to stipulate a list of directors preferred for future projects. John Huston and Howard Hawks were no surprise—having helmed some of Bogart’s most admired films, they were also good friends with the iconic star—and two more of his chosen directors, John Cromwell and Delmer Daves, were well-regarded for their efficiency and expertise (they each worked with Bogart the very next year). Then there was Michael Curtiz. While he had directed what was perhaps Bogart’s most venerated film, 1942’s Casablanca, in 1946 the director was hardly synonymous with Bogart’s body of work, or his temperament. And yet, it was Curtiz who had engaged Bogart prior to Hawks and Huston, the two directors widely credited with Bogart’s ascent to celebrity; it was Curtiz who was the last of the named directors to work with Bogart; and it was Curtiz who had collaborated with Bogart most frequently.
But before this, Curtiz and Bogart were filling in their prescribed studio slots, making the most of what Warner Bros. had to offer. The Hungarian Curtiz (born Mihály Kertész) had been a wildly prolific filmmaker in Europe and his recent epics were particularly impressive. The brothers Warner hoped to translate this grandeur to Hollywood, which they eventually did when Curtiz directed 1928’s Noah's Ark. From here, Curtiz found himself directing whatever came his way, for better or worse, but always with remarkable regularity and proficiency. Bogart’s early career had a similar trajectory. He made his theatrical debut in 1921 and worked steadily, if not auspiciously, for years, landing his first film role in 1928’s The Dancing Town. Initially signing with Fox, he bounced between Broadway and a number of sub-par programmers before also arriving at Warner Bros., where he reprised his revelatory stage role as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936). It was a substantial performance and remains one of Bogart’s best, but it did little to convince studio heads of his latent talent (Warners originally wanted Edward G. Robinson for the part). Bogart signed a minor contract and was thereafter cast as the customary heavy in a series of middling features.
Curtiz entered Bogart’s orbit a year after The Petrified Forest, though it was not in full capacity. Aside from directing his own films from start to finish, the workaholic Curtiz regularly covered for other directors who either left a production briefly or were terminated altogether. Officially attributed to Archie Mayo and Lloyd Bacon, respectively, Black Legion and Marked Woman were both released in 1937 and were models of this substitute fashion. They’re also fine examples of just how varied Bogart’s acting could be if given the opportunity.
After Robinson was rejected for being too “Jewish” and “foreign,” the less ethnically indefinable Bogart was assigned the role of Black Legion’s beleaguered machinist, Frank Taylor, whose occupational struggles are transferred into misguided anti-immigrant sentiment. In this stark and ominously resonant inditement of racism and fascism, Bogart gave what many considered to be his breakout performance. He is impressionable, confused, and unassured, traits rarely applied to his prior or subsequent characters. According to author Alan K. Rode, Curtiz directed several sequences of the film, including the final courtroom scene, but it’s difficult to assign credit to him alone; Mayo, Bogart’s director on The Petrified Forest, was just as adept at eliciting such a tormented turn and Bogart is excellent throughout the picture. Nevertheless, despite the plaudits (Bogart was named best actor by the National Board of Review), Warners failed to sell the film as anything special, and with the diminished marketing
so too did one of Bogart’s earliest achievements was to go by the wayside.
Curtiz was again assigned only portions of Marked Woman, directing, according to Rode, ten scenes total while Bacon went on his honeymoon. As a showcase largely for Bette Davis, who had appeared with Bogart in her 1931 debut, Bad Sister, the film relegates Bogart to a supporting role, but his uncharacteristic outing as crusading district attorney David Graham subverts the actor’s standard felonious persona. He doesn’t appear until about thirty minutes into the film, and when he does, Bogart has a determined and imposing demeanor. He is skeptical and wise and frustrated by the crippling hold of organized crime (a far cry from his traditional placement on the wrong side of the law). While scholars A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax argue that Bogart remains a “cardboard figure … a one-dimensional walking suit set up to be the instrument of Davis’s revenge and presumed moral regeneration,” that evaluation belittles another uncommon turn from the burgeoning star, as Bogart effectively expresses Graham’s sympathetic softness and instinctive plasticity, slouching, hunching over, and gesticulating with commanding enthusiasm.
Compare this with gangster Turkey Morgan, Bogart’s conniving foil to Edward G. Robinson’s boxing promoter in Kid Galahad, also from 1937. Bogart’s first role at Warner Bros. was as a gangster in 1932’s Three on a Match, and the powers that be were usually reluctant to break the mold. The typecasting was restrictive as far as Bogart’s abilities were concerned, but there is no denying his fitness for these prevailing roles. Raymond Chandler once observed that, like Robinson when he was younger, “all [Bogart] has to do to dominate a scene is enter it.” Unlike Robinson, however, whose characters were prone to verbal and physical bombast, and unlike Bogart’s naturally sensitive characters in Black Legion and Marked Woman, here he is a man of limited movements and few words. His slender, stoic, and threateningly calm disposition contrast with Robinson’s squat ball of energy. Glimpsed in a brief close-up during the film’s opening sequence, Bogart says nothing and nothing is said about his character, but as a testament to his compelling screen presence and Curtiz’s expert tonal execution, Bogart’s mere attendance and his piercing glance establish the unidentified antagonist as a crucial component in the conflict to unfold. These complementary virtues are exploited later, when Bogart saunters silently into a party and engenders immediate, durable tension, and even when his secondary character steps away from the film’s primary drama, Curtiz has economically incited Bogart’s lingering menace to the point where his portentous existence remains imprinted on the picture.
Just as significant was Curtiz’s faculty for authentic production design. The stylish and credible rendering of bustling urban environments helped shape Bogart’s screen identity as much as any of his archetypal performances—Bogart was made for such spaces, and such spaces were made for Bogart. This was the case in Kid Galahad, especially its atmospheric boxing scenes, and it was the case in the next Bogart-Curtiz pairing, 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces. Having reneged on an antecedent deal struck with former ally and obstinate criminal Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney), Bogart’s unsavory lawyer, Jim Frazier, is embraced by the confident arms of organized crime and is therefore slick and secure when operating according to plan. When accosted by Cagney, however, Bogart becomes passive and anxious. He quivers in the face of Rocky’s gun, wipes his brow in anguish as the walls of his misdeeds close in, and communicates a convincing vulnerability that, while demonstrating the radius of his emotional reach, did little to bolster Bogart’s contemporary status as anything more than an ancillary adversary.
As predictable as some roles were for Bogart, he was also cast in curiosities like his lone horror film, The Return of Doctor X (1939), where he played a mad, resurrected scientist, and Virginia City (1940), a Curtiz-directed western where he appears as mustachioed bandito John Murrell. Westerns were rare for Bogart (there’s also The Oklahoma Kid, from 1939, featuring an equally unsuited Cagney), but here, his peculiar characterization provides a fascinating divergence from the film’s dominant leads: Union officer Kerry Bradford (Errol Flynn) and Confederate Captain Vance Irby (Randolph Scott). In this notable Civil War-era picture where neither the North nor the South are presented as transparently good or bad, Bogart’s Murrell, for all his strangeness, stands out as a bizarrely accented and unambiguously devious challenger. After proving to be no match for Flynn—Bogart’s slight stature wilts next to the dashing star of no less than twelve Curtiz features—Murrell forms an uneasy, ill-fated alliance with Scott. Even if it’s a questionable Bogart role, his character is the catalyst for the film’s standout action sequences and, as a common enemy, he initiates the somewhat improbable truce between the two dogmatic factions.
Still, contentions were high during Virginia City’s six-week shoot. Nobody was particularly happy on set and Bogart’s attentions were divided by his concurrent assignment on It All Came True (1940). His philosophy was to “keep showing up and continue working,” as Rode writes, “and eventually good things would happen.” Indeed, Bogart’s career received a considerable shot in the arm after High Sierra (1941) and The Maltese Falcon (1941), the former written by Huston and the latter his directorial debut. But it was Curtiz who helped launch Bogart into Hollywood’s upper echelon.
The tumultuous making of Casablanca, as well as its instantaneous and enduring popularity, has been well-documented, and where the credit should be placed for the unforeseen acclaim remains a debatable matter. For Stefan Kanfer, though, it’s simple: “No one would ever refer to Casablanca as an Ingrid Bergman picture or a Paul Henreid picture, or for that matter a Michael Curtiz picture. It was, and would remain, a Humphrey Bogart movie because he was the one who furnished the work with a moral center.” Cynical and savvy, poised and detached, laconic and decent: even the negatives of his character prove to be positives for Bogart. “There was no other player who could have so credibly inhabited the role of Rick Blaine,” adds Kanfer, “expatriate, misanthrope, habitual drinker, and, ultimately, the most self-sacrificing, most romantic Hollywood hero of the war years.” Like the film itself, Bogart represents the goodness and self-sacrifice that can exist in a world overwhelmed by danger and duplicity.
A star was born, but the evolution of Bogart’s cinematic self had been in the making for some time, and stardom didn’t come easy. Author Jeffrey Meyers observes that as early as July 1940, just before he made High Sierra, Warners’ director of advertising and publicity recognized Bogart’s potential and “planned to change the image they had created: ‘Bogart has been typed through publicity as a gangster character. We want to undo this. … Sell Bogart romantically. Sell him as a great actor … predicting great success for him as a star.’” Still, producer Hal B. Wallis had to campaign vigorously for Bogart in Casablanca and though there is incontestable chemistry between he and Bergman, Bogart was uncomfortable in any love scene. He modestly mused, “I didn’t do anything [in Casablanca] I’ve never done in twenty movies before that, and suddenly they discover I’m sexy.”
As for Curtiz, one can’t deny his due responsibility for Casablanca’s triumph, especially when it comes to Bogart’s seeming transformation. Curtiz was a master at blending hope and humor and heartbreak, and although he and Bogart argued over the film’s incomplete screenplay, as well as Curtiz’s abrasive treatment of others and Bogart’s disconcerting habit of learning his lines the morning of a given scene, there was an increasing mutual respect: “Humphrey Bogart never study,” stated Curtiz, “but he is always great.” Curtiz also directed Bogart differently this time around. According to Rode, “he allowed Bogart to find himself as Rick Blaine. Their professional relationship would evolve despite becoming strained by the end of the picture. Bogart loathed the director’s verbal malice toward those who couldn’t fight back. Yet he had a genuine appreciation for Curtiz’s abilities.”
Wherever accountability was assigned, those involved with Casablanca hoped to duplicate its success, and Passage to Marseille (1944), a wartime follow-up, reunited Bogart and Curtiz alongside several of the preceding film’s key players. Told in a multileveled series of flashbacks, Passage to Marseille appears to be an ensemble piece until it finds its focus in Bogart’s gunner, Jean Matrac, a former newspaper publisher turned freedom fighter. In the words of his wife, Matrac has a “tender heart” and a “rugged body,” and through the unspooling of the film’s various narrative threads, Bogart adeptly personifies a conflicted blend of romantic idealism and brutal vengeance. Although he was described as “surly” during much of the production, a result of contractual disputes with Jack Warner and marital difficulties with his third wife, Mayo Methot, Passage to Marseille may contain Bogart’s most varying characterization within a single film.
As the years passed, while Bogart was riding high on a wave of recent achievements, Curtiz was on the decline. His long tenure at Warners had come to a bitter end and he was freelancing for any studio offering solid work. In this position, he ended up at Paramount for his final outing with Bogart. Shot in VistaVision and Technicolor, We’re No Angels (1955) is a black comedy in which Bogart plays one of three Devil’s Island escapes who plan to rob and, if necessary, kill the family of a struggling shop owner, only to then end up assisting the fraught household. Bogart’s Joseph is the ostensible ringleader of the ragtag hoods with hearts of gold and Bogart himself was the obvious selling point, but he never acts above anyone else or the film as a whole, as trifling as it might be. And although neither director nor star were best known for their comedic aptitude, Bogart and his costars evince an undemanding rapport, reflecting the genial nature behind the scenes. A mellower Curtiz and company deliver well-timed quips and easy-going diversions, proving for the final time that the director could elicit from Bogart another unexpected performance.
It’s understandable if Bogart and Curtiz aren’t immediately identified in tandem. He may have directed some of the most successful films of the era, and garnered four Oscar nominations in the process (winning for Casablanca), but Curtiz seldom received the sort of authorial prominence as a Hawks or Huston. As for Bogart, most of his films with Curtiz were oddities, departures from the norms of his stereotypical screen persona, or they were so similar to those tried-and-true types that they blend with other, comparable roles. Yet there is noteworthy variance in the eight films Bogart and Curtiz made together, testifying to the underappreciated range of both men. Like Curtiz, Bogart’s talents canvased multiple genres, and also like his recurrent director, he rarely failed to make an impact.
The series "Bogart" runs July 16 - August 5, 2021 at Film Forum in New York.